My thesis is simple: To urge people to love Jesus more, to obey him more fully, and seek for increasing holiness and godliness is NOT about working your way to heaven. It is NOT ‘works righteousness’. It is NOT legalism. It is NOT going back under bondage. It is NOT abandoning the gospel. It is NOT self-righteousness.
So let me tell you what it is: It is called sanctification. And without sanctification, there is no salvation. Indeed, without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). This should be basic Christianity 101, and it is not all that difficult to understand.
But I hear this so often from rather confused believers that I have to keep going back to biblical basics to explain this over and over. Even though I have penned many pieces on this, I find that I need to do it once again. Striving to please God, obey God and become like him is not about relying on human works and effort to obtain salvation.
Yet I encounter this constantly, and I have lost count of the times theologically impaired folks have accused me of pushing works righteousness, or of being a legalist, or worse still for some, being a crypto-Catholic, because I dare to affirm the whole counsel of God, and to affirm the heart of the New Testament.
So let me restate as simply as I can the biblical understanding of all this. Salvation consists of at least two major aspects: justification and sanctification. The first is the initial, one-off work of God whereby we are pronounced not guilty and declared righteous because of the finished work of Christ at Calvary.
The latter is simply the outworking of that initial work of grace. The former is purely by grace through faith, while the latter is indeed a joint venture between God and me. We work together with God to actualise and live out that act of saving grace.
The many hundreds of imperatives (commands) found in the New Testament are there for a reason: once we are regenerated through the work of the Holy Spirit, we change, we put off the old man, we seek to be more Christlike, and we live a life of progressive transformation – that is, sanctification.
Just a few – of many passages can be appealed to here:
-Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.
-2 Corinthians 7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
-Ephesians 5:8-10 Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.
-1 Thessalonians 4:1 Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.
-2 Thessalonians 2:13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.
-2 Timothy 2:21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
-1 Peter 2:2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.
Even a key justification passage like Ephesians 2:8-9 is immediately followed by a clear sanctification statement in verse 10:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
And another vital passage which ties all this together is Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and do for His good pleasure.” There we see the truth of sanctification plainly stated: God is at work in us, but we are to work as well. Getting this straight will help us all avoid a lot of confusion and difficulty in this regard.
Now, are there nonetheless some people – perhaps many – seeking to earn their salvation by works and human effort? Of course. And do many people miss justification altogether, and confuse sanctification with how they get right with God? Sure. And was Luther right to stress that the just shall live by faith? You bet.
But going from one extreme to another helps no one here. If some people seek to work their way into heaven, the opposite extreme is no more helpful: the ‘let go and let God’ approach, where we sit back and do nothing, and just talk about “grace, grace, grace” all day. That is not how the Christian life works. We are saved by grace (justification) but then we cooperate with God for the rest of our lives in becoming more like him (sanctification).
So many great Christian teachers and scholars could be cited here concerning all this. Let me appeal to just one who does a good job of laying this out in a straightforward and easy to understand fashion. I refer to R. C. Sproul and his very helpful book, Pleasing God. I will finish with several useful quotes from it:
We remember that justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. The central affirmation of all Protestantism is that we are justified by faith and not by works. But the instant that true justifying faith is present in the life of the believer, the person begins to change. That change will be evidenced in a life that moves to obedience. Good works necessarily flow out of true faith. The works do not justify us. It is the righteousness of Christ that justifies us. But if the works do not follow, it is proof positive that we do not have genuine faith and are therefore still unjustified people.
There is no such thing as a carnal Christian in the antinomian sense. The concept is as perilous as it is self-contradictory. The peril is that people begin to think that all that is required to be saved is a profession of faith. But the Bible warns us that people can honour Christ with their lips while their hearts are far from Him (Matt. 15:8). They can say they have faith without truly owning what they claim to possess: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14). James answers his own question by declaring emphatically that such a faith is dead (James 2:17) and can save no one. (pp. 131-132)
One of the great distortions of the doctrine of sanctification may be found in the creed of quietism. Traditionally, quietism has referred to a kind of spiritual passivity that emphasizes divine activity and human inactivity. The popular slogan of quietism is, “Let go and let God.” The slogan has merit if it is intended to remind us that our spiritual progress cannot be achieved merely by our own efforts. Self-reformation is an exercise in futility if it proceeds without a dependence upon the grace of God (John 15:5). But there is a better way to express this dependence. Rather than “Let go and let God,” we ought to say “Hang on and trust God.
To be sanctified involves work – activity, not passivity. This is why the Apostle exhorts Christians to a life of work: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Sanctification is cooperative. There are two partners involved in the work. I must work and God must work. . . . We are not called to sit back and let God do all the work. We are called to work, and to work hard.
If we live to please God, we must constantly remind ourselves that our effort is extremely important. Our salvation does not end when we are reborn. True, the Spirit does the work of regeneration by Himself. Regeneration is monergistic, not synergistic. I am passive when the Spirit does His work of quickening my soul. But then the work begins. I must work out my salvation. I must press toward the mark. Though the Spirit always helps us, we must work out our salvation.” (pp. 193-195)